Tammy's a Gangsta

Melissa McCarthy's Tammy (2014) has finally made it down the pachinko machine of secondary distribution to land on HBO this month, readily available now to those who were too lazy or cheap to shell out for On-Demand fat jokes. In case Tammy doesn't ring a bell, it's that movie where McCarthy wears a greasy bag over her head and inelegantly slides across a countertop to rob a fast-food joint of some money and a few fried pies.

I try to see every film about the fast-food industry that I can.  It may not be a genre, per se, but it is as distinctly an "American" chronotope as a western saloon, a beach party weenie- roast, or a multi-vehicle freeway shoot-out.  After all, what could be more American than taking a simple human pleasure like eating and industrializing it into a vertically-integrated hellscape of killing, compositing, and freezing meats for commuters to cram down on their way to the hellscape of alienated labor?   Imagine an elderly Italian couple on the Mediterranean coast putting the finishing touches on their evening puttanesca.  Now imagine an Olive Garden. 

Your table awaits....in HELL!
The fast-food industry is also an excellent barometer of America's changing economic and social structures.  As an educator and former "cook," I used to have an exercise where I would ask undergrads how many of them have "flipped burgers" at one point in their life.  Many years ago, about half of a typical undergrad class had experience on one side or another of a restaurant counter. Now I just get blank stares.  White kids sure as hell aren't doing this work anymore (despite GOP fantasies to the contrary)--unless of course they are teenage mothers in the rural midwest putting in a few hours each week at the Hardee's near their dying town's freeway exit.

Fast-food work is horrible, so I'm not surprised that few see it anymore as a decent "first-job" to save up for installing an awesome 8-track--cassette--CD--mp3--Spotify unit in the car. You will learn some brutal truths working fast-food.  As a 16 year-old, you might suspect you are horrendous to behold, but you'll only know for sure when your first boss, a 30-year-old pothead named Rocky, assigns you to work "behind the counter" (frying, cleaning, chopping, washing...essentially anything dirty and dangerous).  Meanwhile, those whom Rocky hopes he might lure into the backseat of his car will get counter duty (smiling, making change, running over to Rocky's apartment to score more weed, etc).  Weirdly, both pay the same shitty wage--only you are much more likely to DIE behind the counter (although, in fairness, Rocky is much more likely to impregnate the front of the counter squad). 

Your jalapeno poppers are ready...in HELL!
Avoid contact...period.
Recently, McDonalds has been under attack once again, this time for managers who have told employees to treat their burns with "condiments" rather than say, medicine. Veterans of this work know that every fast-food kitchen should have a burn-unit out back near the dumpster. You might think the only hazards are those deliciously charbroiling flames leaping from the grill, but in fact fast-food work is a third-degree obstacle course where all you win is the right to return the next day with all of your skin. Cleaning the grease-trap on the fryer is a good E-ticket to some welting, as is accidentally opening the steam-washer in mid-cycle.  And don't forget the chemical burns! Those grills don't get scrubbed with a little soap and water, compadre.  They are scoured with an industrial cleaner that will blind or de-flesh you on contact, despite the fact that this goo has been dyed pink or purple or yellow to make it look more innocuous and even "fun!"

But I digress.  We were talking about Tammy.  The movie is not as terrible as the reviews suggest.  From the cast, you would think it might be a comedy for the ages.  But do not be deceived.  Toni Collette and Allison Janney are both in the film, ostensibly, but are essentially used as props (as I recall, Collette has two scenes and remains mute in both).  Tammy is a white-trash Bildungsroman wherein McCarthy and Susan Sarandon, as grand-daughter and her grandmother Pearl, embark on a very minor road trip that allows McCarthy to find herself (and a Duplass brother to boot).  If Identity Thief made you chuckle, here too you will chuckle.

Tammy goin' all gangsta and shit. 
The robbery sequence, however, is somewhat jaw-dropping.  Given that McCarthy's shtick with the bag over her head constituted 80% of the marketing for this film, the following should not be a spoiler.  At one point in the story, Tammy needs to raise some quick cash, inspiring her to knock over a local burger joint (the same chain she used to work for, only in another town).  A virgin at armed robbery, Tammy tries to "psych" herself up before entering the restaurant. She has no gun, so she needs to project enough "attitude" to convince the employees that she is armed and dangerous. What would a middle-aged white housewife in Missouri do to take on this mantle of criminal invincibility?  Listen to Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" while strutting around the parking lot, of course. 

As the last couple of elections demonstrate so vividly, the racial divide cultivated during Reconstruction between impoverished whites and any and all people of color remains a potent force in American politics.  But I'm not sure having Tammy "go gangsta" is really the answer to social, economic, and cultural reconciliation.  One might say it's just a "joke," but of course no joke is just a "joke."  From a comedy perspective, this brief bit allows McCarthy to do her patented physical comedy of the "big girl" dancing, prancing, and preening to a dope beat.  What is troubling, however, is the naturalized and totally unexamined invocation of rap as a signifier of criminality--Tammy can only do the crime if she can first do some time as a black teenager.  

This is even more odd considering the entire film takes place among white people in Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky.  If the filmmakers wanted to engage in stereotypes of race, class, and criminality, why not have Tammy perform some tweeker courage to Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law," or maybe a little Kid Rock?  Given that the film opens with Tammy providing a spirited rendition of the Outfield's "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love Tonight," Priest and Rock seem more appropriate options.  

Perhaps because of the better verisimilitude, those options would not be as funny.  To do the unthinkable, Tammy must gather strength from a more potent stream of pure criminality--gangsta rap!  

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I take a look at my life and realize there's nothin' left.

Cause I've been laughing and blasting so long,

That even my mama thinks that my mind is gone!

Like Coolio's "gangsta" protagonist, Tammy is also out of good options at this point in the film.  Out of money and facing even bigger troubles, she awkwardly relieves the greasy spoon of a few thousand dollars.  The politics of this are questionable, but given that comedy depends on incongruity, I guess you could let it slide (although it might be funnier to see McCarthy getting amped up by Adele or Meghan Trainor or someone else equally unlikely). 

Having a rich relative is very convenient. 
This moment of rather unconscious racism might pass unnoticed.  But then, in an odd twist, we meet Lenore (played by Kathy Bates) and her wife Suzanne (Sandra Oh).  As it turns out, this burned-out desperate family of drunks, delinquents, and felonious fast-food workers has an incredibly wealthy lesbian couple in the family tree.  Lenore and Suzanne, we discover, made it big in the organic pet food business, and now occupy a palatial country estate where they are about to host a gigantic 4th of July party for the region's most affluent and fashionable lesbians.

Lenore still has some street in her, however, so first she helps Tammy and Pearl torch the car used in the robbery.  There follows a weekend idyll at the country estate that allows both Tammy and Pearl to work out their issues and re-stabilize their lives.  

Now, I would suggest this is not an option available to the young man at the center of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise."  In fact, this weird moment of explicit white privilege makes the entire robbery scene and Tammy's earlier hip-hop routine a little hard to stomach.  As is made clear by the close bond between Lenore, Pearl, and Tammy--no one is really in any actual trouble here.  Lenore is adamant that she and Suzanne had to fight hard for everything they have (even when being gay wasn't so popular, she notes), and in a decisive moment she lectures Tammy about the necessity of taking charge of one's life and doing the hard work it takes to succeed.  And yet, the utopian space of Lenore's estate ultimately stands as a powerful figure of a white safety-net.  Lenore demonstrates tough love--but clearly, if Tammy needs a loan to get through this rough patch, it's a good bet Lenore will come through with the check.  

Tammy isn't an evil movie by any means.  But it is weird that in the end, all of the economic distress experienced by Tammy--as well as her resulting brush with "urban" crime--is explained away through low self-esteem.  If only the kids in Boyz in the Hood had had a similar fairy godmother to let them chill for a weekend and get their shit together.  

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